PEOPLE who use social media to “peddle hate or abuse” will not escape justice by hiding behind their computers or phones, Scotland’s top law chief has warned amid new guidelines on whether messages posted online constitute a crime.
The Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal (COPFS) said it wants to reassure the public that it takes such offences as seriously as crimes committed in person.
It has set out four categories of behaviour, including “grossly offensive, indecent or obscene” comments.
However it said there is no danger to freedom of speech, and stressed that people will not be prosecuted for satirical comments, offensive humour or provocative statements.
Lord Advocate Frank Mulholland QC said: “The rule of thumb is simple - if it would be illegal to say it on the street, it is illegal to say it online.
“Those who use the internet to peddle hate or abuse, to harass, to blackmail, or any other number of crimes, need to know that they cannot evade justice simply by hiding behind their computers or mobile phones.
“I hope this serves as a wake-up call to them.
“As prosecutors we will continue to do all in our power to bring those who commit these crimes to justice, and I would encourage anyone who thinks they have been victim of such a crime to report it to the police.”
The Crown Office said it has chosen to publish its guidance to ensure there is absolute clarity both in terms of its approach and the difference between criminal and non-criminal communications.
It said it will take a “robust approach” to communications posted via social media if they are criminal in content, in the same way as such communications would be handled if they were said or published in the non-virtual world.
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The four categories of communication which prosecutors will consider are those which:
• Specifically target an individual or group of individuals, in particular communications which are considered to be hate crime, domestic abuse, or stalking;
• May constitute credible threats of violence to the person, damage to property or incite public disorder;
• May amount to a breach of a court order or contravene legislation making it a criminal offence to release or publish information relating to proceedings;
• Do not fall into categories 1,2 or 3 but are nonetheless considered to be grossly offensive, indecent or obscene or involve the communication of false information about an individual or group of individuals which results in adverse consequences for that individual or group of individuals.
In an interview on BBC Radio Scotland, the Lord Advocate was asked how “grossly offensive” could be defined when it could be seen as relative.
He replied: “The guidance sets out that it would not include, for example, humour, satirical comment, which is part of the democratic debate, so there’s guidance to prosecutors as to what’s not included.
“It doesn’t include offensive comment because we recognise that, in a democratic society, with use of social media you can have offensive comment which wouldn’t be criminal but it’s really the category above the high bar grossly offensive which has a significant effect on the recipient of the comment.
“We’ve all seen on the media reports of what you described, internet trolls, where this kind of comment, grossly offensive comment, is sent out to directly wound and has quite a significant effect.”
He added: “There’s very detailed guidance of all the factors that prosecutors will take into account when they assess whether or not to raise criminal proceedings in relation to grossly offensive comments posted on social media.”
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